Who are the Kurds?

Who are the Kurds?

15 October 2019
Kurdish men sit in the bazaar in Sulaimaniya, Iraq (17 October 2002)Image copyrightAFP

Between 25 and 35 million Kurds inhabit a mountainous region straddling the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. They make up the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but they have never obtained a permanent nation state.

Where do they come from?

The Kurds are one of the indigenous peoples of the Mesopotamian plains and the highlands in what are now south-eastern Turkey, north-eastern Syria, northern Iraq, north-western Iran and south-western Armenia.

Middle East map showing Kurdish areas

Today, they form a distinctive community, united through race, culture and language, even though they have no standard dialect. They also adhere to a number of different religions and creeds, although the majority are Sunni Muslims.

Kurdistan: A State of Uncertainty

Why don’t they have a state?

An Israeli Kurdish woman holds a Kurdish flag as she takes part in a rally outside the US embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel (26 October 2017)Image copyrightREUTERS
Image captionDespite their long history, the Kurds have never achieved a permanent nation-state

In the early 20th Century, many Kurds began to consider the creation of a homeland – generally referred to as “Kurdistan”. After World War One and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the victorious Western allies made provision for a Kurdish state in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres.

Such hopes were dashed three years later, however, when the Treaty of Lausanne, which set the boundaries of modern Turkey, made no provision for a Kurdish state and left Kurds with minority status in their respective countries. Over the next 80 years, any move by Kurds to set up an independent state was brutally quashed.

Aiming to change the outcome of World War One

Why were Kurds at the forefront of the fight against IS?

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters on the front line in the Gwer district, south of Irbil, Iraq (15 September 2014)Image copyrightAFP
Image caption Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have been fighting IS militants in northern Iraq

In mid-2013, the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) turned its sights on three Kurdish enclaves that bordered territory under its control in northern Syria. It launched repeated attacks that until mid-2014 were repelled by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) – the armed wing of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD).

An IS advance in northern Iraq in June 2014 also drew that country’s Kurds into the conflict. The government of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region sent its Peshmerga forces to areas abandoned by the Iraqi army.

In August 2014, the jihadists launched a surprise offensive and the Peshmerga withdrew from several areas. A number of towns inhabited by religious minorities fell, notably Sinjar, where IS militants killed or captured thousands of Yazidis.

Smoke rises after an air strike on an Islamic State position in the Syrian town of Kobane (12 October 2014)Image copyrightAFP
Image caption Turkish military personnel did not intervene in the battle for Kobane

In response, a US-led multinational coalition launched air strikes in northern Iraq and sent military advisers to help the Peshmerga. The YPG and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey for three decades and has bases in Iraq, also came to their aid.

In September 2014, IS launched an assault on the enclave around the northern Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, forcing tens of thousands of people to flee across the nearby Turkish border. Despite the proximity of the fighting, Turkey refused to attack IS positions or allow Turkish Kurds to cross to defend it.

People shout slogans while they carry the coffins of victims of a suicide bombing in the Turkish town of Suruc on 20 July 2015Image copyrightAFP
Image captionKurds accused Turkish authorities of complicity after a 2015 suicide bombing in Suruc

In January 2015, after a battle that left at least 1,600 people dead, Kurdish forces regained control of Kobane.

The Kurds – fighting alongside several local Arab militias under the banner of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance, and helped by US-led coalition airstrikes, weapons and advisers – then steadily drove IS out of tens of thousands of square kilometres of territory in north-eastern Syria and established control over a large stretch of the border with Turkey.

In October 2017, SDF fighters captured the de facto IS capital of Raqqa and then advanced south-eastwards into the neighbouring province of Deir al-Zour – the jihadists’ last major foothold in Syria.

Rojda Felat, a Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commander, waves her group's flag in central Raqqa on 17 October 2017Image copyrightAFP
Image captionThe Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance captured the IS stronghold of Raqqa

The last pocket of territory held by IS in Syria – around the village of Baghouz – fell to the SDF in March 2019. The SDF hailed the “total elimination” of the IS “caliphate”, but it warned that jihadist sleeper cells remained “a great threat”.

The SDF was also left to deal with the thousands of suspected IS militants captured during the last two years of the battle, as well as tens of thousands of displaced women and children associated with IS fighters. The US called for the repatriation of foreign nationals among them, but most of their home countries refused.

A woman and child flee the last IS-held pocket of territory near Baghouz, Syria, on 13 February 2019Image copyrightAFP
Image captionThe SDF is holding 70,000 civilians who fled areas once held by IS

In October 2019, US troops pulled back from the border with Turkey after the country’s president said it was about to launch an operation to set up a 32km (20-mile) deep “safe zone” clear of YPG fighters and resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees there. The SDF said it had been “stabbed in the back” by the US and warned that the offensive might reverse the defeat of IS, the fight against which it said it could no longer prioritise.

Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebels made steady gains in the first few days of the operation. In response, the SDF turned to the Syrian government for help and reached a deal for the Syrian army to deploy along the border.

The Syrian government has vowed to take back control of all of Syria.

What has Kobane battle taught us?

Raqqa: The city fit for no-one

Why does Turkey see Kurds as a threat?

Members of the Kurdish community wave flags and banners showing the face of jailed Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan, during a demonstration calling for his release in Strasbourg, France, on 14 February 2015Image copyrightAFP
Image captionPKK leader Abdullah Ocalan has been imprisoned by Turkey since 1999

There is deep-seated hostility between the Turkish state and the country’s Kurds, who constitute 15% to 20% of the population.

Kurds received harsh treatment at the hands of the Turkish authorities for generations. In response to uprisings in the 1920s and 1930s, many Kurds were resettled, Kurdish names and costumes were banned, the use of the Kurdish language was restricted, and even the existence of Kurdish ethnic identity was denied, with people designated “Mountain Turks”.

In 1978, Abdullah Ocalan established the PKK, which called for an independent state within Turkey. Six years later, the group began an armed struggle. Since then, more than 40,000 people have been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced.

PKK fighters chat during a training exercise in northern Iraq on 20 June 2007Image copyrightAFP
Image caption- more than 40,000 people have been killed since the PKK launched an armed struggle in 1984

In the 1990s the PKK rolled back on its demand for independence, calling instead for greater cultural and political autonomy, but continued to fight. In 2013, a ceasefire was agreed after secret talks were held.

The ceasefire collapsed in July 2015, after a suicide bombing blamed on IS killed 33 young activists in the mainly Kurdish town of Suruc, near the Syrian border. The PKK accused the authorities of complicity and attacked Turkish soldiers and police. The Turkish government subsequently launched what it called a “synchronised war on terror” against the PKK and IS.

Since then, several thousand people – including hundreds of civilians – have been killed in clashes in south-eastern Turkey.

People walk past ruined houses and shops in Cizre, Turkey (8 March 2016)Image copyrightAFP
Image captionThe city of Cizre was devastated by fighting between Turkish forces and the PKK

Turkey has maintained a military presence in northern Syria since August 2016, when it sent troops and tanks over the border to support a Syrian rebel offensive against IS. Those forces captured the key border town of Jarablus, preventing the YPG-led SDF from seizing the territory itself and linking up with the Kurdish enclave of Afrin to the west.

In 2018, Turkish troops and allied Syrian rebels launched an operation to expel YPG fighters from Afrin. Dozens of civilians were killed and tens of thousands displaced.

Turkey’s government says the YPG and the PYD are extensions of the PKK, share its goal of secession through armed struggle, and are terrorist organisations that must be eliminated.

Turkey’s fear of a reignited Kurdish flame

Profile: The PKK

What do Syria’s Kurds want?

Asya Abdullah, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Unity Party (PYD), (centre), smiles as she attends the meeting of Kurdish representatives from Turkey, Syria and Iraq in Moscow on 15 February 2017Image copyrightAFP
Image captionThe Democratic Union Party (PYD) is the dominant force in Syria’s Kurdish regions

Kurds make up between 7% and 10% of Syria’s population. Before the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011 most lived in the cities of Damascus and Aleppo, and in three, non-contiguous areas around Kobane, Afrin, and the north-eastern city of Qamishli.

Syria’s Kurds have long been suppressed and denied basic rights. Some 300,000 have been denied citizenship since the 1960s, and Kurdish land has been confiscated and redistributed to Arabs in an attempt to “Arabize” Kurdish regions.

When the uprising evolved into a civil war, the main Kurdish parties publicly avoided taking sides. In mid-2012, government forces withdrew to concentrate on fighting the rebels elsewhere, and Kurdish groups took control in their wake.

Supporters and members of the Syrian Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) drive through Qamishli after the announcement of the capture of the city of Raqqa (17 October 2017)Image copyrightAFP
Image captionThe YPG has emerged as a key ally of the US-led coalition battle against IS

In January 2014, Kurdish parties – including the dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD) – declared the creation of “autonomous administrations” in the three “cantons” of Afrin, Kobane and Jazira.

In March 2016, they announced the establishment of a “federal system” that included mainly Arab and Turkmen areas captured from IS.

The declaration was rejected by the Syrian government, the Syrian opposition, Turkey and the US.

Delegates from Syrian Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian and other parties take part in a conference in Rumeilan at which a federal system in Kurdish-controlled northern regions was announced (17 March 2016)Image copyrightAFP
Image captionThe creation of a federal system in Kurdish-controlled northern Syria was announced in 2016

The PYD says it is not seeking independence but insists that any political settlement to end the conflict in Syria must include legal guarantees for Kurdish rights and recognition of Kurdish autonomy.

President Assad has vowed to retake “every inch” of Syrian territory, whether by negotiations or military force. His government has also rejected Kurdish demands for autonomy, saying that “nobody in Syria accepts talk about independent entities or federalism”.

Will Iraq’s Kurds gain independence?

Mulla Mustafa Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, holds hands with Saddam Hussein, then deputy chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council of the Iraqi Baath Party (20 March 1970)Image copyright Hulton ARCHIVE
Image captionA peace deal agreed by the KDP and Iraq’s government in 1970 collapsed four years later

Kurds make up an estimated 15% to 20% of Iraq’s population. They have historically enjoyed more national rights than Kurds living in neighbouring states, but also faced brutal repression.

In 1946, Mustafa Barzani formed the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to fight for autonomy in Iraq. But it was not until 1961 that he launched a full armed struggle.

Iraqi Kurdish refugees take shelter at a refugee camp in south-eastern Turkey after fleeing fighting between Iraqi government forces and Peshmerga in May 1991Image copyrightAFP
Image caption some 1.5 million Iraqi Kurds fled into Iran and Turkey after the 1991 rebellion was crushed

In the late 1970s, the government began settling Arabs in areas with Kurdish majorities, particularly around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and forcibly relocating Kurds.

The policy was accelerated in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq War, in which the Kurds backed the Islamic republic. In 1988, Saddam Hussein unleashed a campaign of vengeance on the Kurds that included the chemical attack on Halabja.

When Iraq was defeated in the 1991 Gulf War, Barzani’s son Massoud and Jalal Talabani of the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led a Kurdish rebellion. Its violent suppression prompted the US and its allies to impose a no-fly zone in the north that allowed Kurds to enjoy self-rule. The KDP and PUK agreed to share power, but tensions rose and a four-year war erupted between them in 1994.

Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani at a news conference in Dokan (3 May 2009)Image copyrightAFP
Image caption Massoud Barzani’s KDP and Jalal Talabani’s PUK shared power after the fall of Saddam

The parties co-operated with the US-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Saddam and governed in coalition in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), created two years later to administer Dohuk, Irbil and Sulaimaniya provinces.

Massoud Barzani was appointed the region’s president, while Jalal Talabani became Iraq’s first non-Arab head of state.

In September 2017, a referendum on independence was held in both the Kurdistan Region and the disputed areas seized by the Peshmerga in 2014, including Kirkuk. The vote was opposed by the Iraqi central government, which insisted it was illegal.

People are seen casting their vote in a Kurdish independence referendum at a polling station in Kirkuk, Iraq (25 September 2017)Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionPeople in Kurdish-held areas decisively backed independence in a September 2017 referendum

More than 90% of the 3.3 million people who voted supported secession. KRG officials said the result gave them a mandate to start negotiations with Baghdad, but then Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi demanded that it be annulled.

The following month Iraqi pro-government forces retook the disputed territory held by the Kurds. The loss of Kirkuk and its oil revenue was a major blow to Kurdish aspirations for their own state.

After his gamble backfired, Mr Barzani stepped down as the Kurdistan Region’s president. But disagreements between the main parties meant the post remained vacant until June 2019, when he was succeeded by his nephew Nechirvan.

Iraqi Kurdistan: State-in-the-making?

Iraqi Kurdistan profile

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Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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